By TED CARTER
Mississippi has a lengthy history of growing small private businesses into huge ones, a track record economic development professional Robert Ingram attributes to a combination of risk-takers, nurturers and possibly “something in the water.”
“Mississippi has done a tremendous job of creating entrepreneurs and growing them into major players in the field,” says Ingram, a semi-retired economic development professional who spent most of his 40-year career in Mississippi.
But the future won’t leave much room for error on the part of entrepreneurs, warns Peter Walley, who studies Mississippi’s economic future as director of the Economic Development Planning Bureau at the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning.
Walley says his worry is that many of Mississippi’s homegrown businesses lack an in-depth understanding of their markets and what awaits them when they begin competing outside of The Magnolia State.
“It really is all about understanding markets. Our big guys understand markets. But where we are hurting is in the small businesses and entrepreneurs. I think we’re still wrestling with access to markets, not knowing markets enough to grow that business outside of Mississippi.”
Business founders “come up with some great ideas, maybe even implement some,” Walley says. “We’ve had some success stories. Look at Bomgar (a company providing remote network support Mississippi tech entrepreneur Joel Bomgar created and sold 11 years later to Boston equity investment firm TA Associates). When he got it to a certain level someone comes in and offers to buy it.”
Social media network Twitter is a good example of an idea that seems to have met a dead end in terms of market, according to Walley.
“They were early to market,” he says. “Now, the growth of Twitter has kind of peaked, and it hasn’t been able to adapt. Yet you go to some of these new social media aps that really took off because they know what their consumers want.
“Twitter has arose, thrived and leveled out in seven years,” Walley says.
For all innovation-based companies, he adds. “The treadmill now is running a lot harder and a lot quicker.”
For Bomgar Remote Support, getting to the ownership-exit point marked a significant achievement, considering the failure rate of other homegrown companies, Walley notes. “I am not indicting anyone. The relationship between birth and death of private companies has been skewered toward death.”
Walley further worries that “secular stagnation is the new normal.” He puts a measure of the fault on the mixed success Mississippi and other states have had in leveraging productivity gains from the digital economy.
“In the U.S. and globally we have had almost no productivity growth. There is something structurally going on in the economy that effects all businesses.”
Mississippi could counter some of this through development of a workforce better able to fill jobs requiring “cognitive” or decision-making tasks, Walley says.
Still, Mississippi has an enviable track record of private sector success, argues Ingram, who teaches economic development at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“I can name company after company,” says Ingram, citing such major enterprises as Viking Ranges, Sanderson Farms, Peavey Electronics, Howard Industries and a handful of telecommunications companies, including Cspire.
“Most people wouldn’t expect that out of a small state, especially a poor state,” he says.
“I don’t know if it is the water or what, but we seem to have the ability to nurture the enterprise.”
Plus, Ingram adds, “We have risk takers willing to step out.”
Ingram attributes some of the success to the help incubators and accelerators run by the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University and other universities across the state. An independent spirit has also helped to propel entrepreneurial growth, he says, adding that same free spiritedness can “be a blessing at times and other times less than a blessing.”
By less-than-a-blessing, Ingram cites an unwillingness to recognize changes in the economy and – in a point of agreement with Walley – new market opportunities.
Ingram and Walley find further agreement on the education front. “Challenges for me are things like public schools. So many underfunded, understaffed,” says Ingram, a McComb native and former mayor of his hometown.
“Teachers don’t have the resources,” he says.
And many of the state’s youth who come from poverty lack educational support at home, he adds.
With automation becoming increasingly advanced and able to move goods from point A to point B, manual labor jobs in truck driving and warehousing may get scarce, Walley says.
“A great chunk of our people are not preparing themselves,” he says, bemoaning an absence of flexibly and adaptability.
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